How Whitman College created a COVID-19 course

"A Liberal Arts Approach to the Study of a Global Pandemic" was a collaboration between 21 professors for admitted students

This summer, multiple professors at Whitman College in Washington participated in a coronavirus course for admitted students and now other higher ed leaders can access the content to provide similar lectures at their own institutions.

“We wanted to expose admitted students to the different types of academic disciplines that contribute to understanding COVID-19 as a problem in real-time,” says Shampa Biswas, chair of the social sciences and Paul Garrett professor of political science. “So, it’s not just a question of the sciences related to the novel coronavirus, but politics, sociology, humanities and the fine arts. One slice is not adequate to the task of providing a more holistic solution to the coronavirus.”

Preparing for the COVID-19 course

To adopt a more holistic approach, Biswas asked professors in the sciences, social sciences and the humanities to see if they would participate in the class and provided guidelines to her colleagues who expressed an interest. “I made sure to communicate that they would be teaching high schoolers, many of whom haven’t enrolled in college-level courses, so I asked them to think of it as an introductory-level class,” says Biswas. “I also reminded everyone that this generation gets easily distracted, especially now with multiple devices at easy reach, so I recommended keeping their lectures engaging with visuals, to not sell a major but to focus on a specific topic and to intersperse questions throughout and at the end of their lectures that encourage reflection and analyses, not just the regurgitation of facts.”

Admitted students answered final questions on discussion boards while current students moderated and responded to their comments. Current students who interacted on the forums and even participated in the lecture first took part in a Zoom meeting. “We discussed when and how to debate with admitted students, and to watch out for the kinds of things you would normally look out for in class,” says Biswas. “For example, when you disagree with someone, make sure to focus on the content of their argument and not to make it personal.”

Formats and discussions

More than 20 professors created a variety of lectures that included videos of themselves teaching, images with voiceover and discussions with current students on existentialism, for example. Approximately 170 students from various countries shared their personal experiences and how their governments have been responding to the pandemic.

“Most faculty members believe that, in moments of crises, education becomes even more important to provide intellectual resources to students and are therefore more willing to collaborate,” says Biswas. “We are all worried about college enrollment next year, in which students might not be able to come to class and see the unique experiences that we can provide, so there was a desire to show our admitted students the strength of our academic program.”

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